Here are some things I noticed from my first time at AWP:
1) Many panel proposals get rejected, which is good, I think, in general. There are so many already, and some of them are so packed that despite everyone sticking to their time limit (which happened at almost every panel I went to and if it didn’t it was maybe 25 minutes instead of 15, not 40 instead of 15 like I have seen at other conferences) there is no time for questions. However, there seem to be a large number of tribute panels.
2) Tribute panels can be quite good if you don’t know the work of the author in question. The more familiar you are with the author’s work, the less interesting the panel may be. I was introduced to the work of Gail Mazur, for instance, and will investigate her work further. But:
a. It is awkward no matter what when the writer being paid tribute is in the room. This is for a stranger (me), mind you. And:
b. The cosmopolitan centres in which these conferences are held (Boston, in this case) like to think they are speaking for the whole world when many of their writers are regional in exactly the same sense as a writer from South Dakota may be, or a writer from Saskatchewan, or the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, and this is obvious because:
c. Many of the panelists on the tribute panels pay more attention in their presentation to the person of the writer than to her work. A past poet laureate speaking anecdotally, for instance, of meetings with James Tate and conferences 40 years ago, etc. (Usually involving alcohol and drugs, which I will discuss later.) But:
d. The best of these tributes, as the best writing in general does, to my mind, offer something of the speaker, too, and move quickly on from the personal anecdotes, using them only as an opening to speak of the work of the writer in question and in the end come back to what that work has meant to the speaker’s own work and development as an artist.
3) Nobody really wants to disagree. Or, they do want to disagree but they don’t want to be disagreed with. There was an interesting panel constructed and presented as a response to a Tony Hoagland essay lauding the message in The Gift, by Lewis Hyde, and bemoaning the overly clever poetry Hoagland sees being produced today. Largely, he says, due to MFA programs working within contemporary capitalism. Of course he said he isn’t anti-intellectual although his argument certainly seemed to be. Of course his essay relied upon self-conscious (seemingly self-conscious to me, but who knows? This is part of the problem. As one panelist noted in her response, maybe these poets aren’t trying to “sound smart” as Hoagland argued; maybe they “are smart” and sound as they are) word play and elevated and sometimes specialist vocabulary. When the poet Peter Campion responded and disagree with some of Hoagland’s argument, while accepting much of it, Hoagland was upset. In fact, he grabbed the mic at the end of the panel and attacked Campion, accusing him of using ad hominem attacks and “spreading shame” – a phrase he used about 3 times. Hoagland’s attack took up the rest of the time and Campion was not allowed a response. Very funny here, because I didn’t see Campion’s paper indulging in ad hominem attacks (and Hoagland had accused Campion of these attacks on Lewis Hyde, not himself, probably as he was unwilling to talk about what he felt was a personal attack on himself) and probably what Hoagland was talking about was a bit near the end when Campion explicated a couple of lines from Hoagland’s essay to point out that his language engaged in exactly the same intellectual or academic language and made an effort to “sound smart.” This is what has often bothered me about anti-intellectuals in the academy or writing community. It happens often and is patronizing and insulting (as patronization always is, I suppose). Writers present themselves as less intellectual than they are, they try to dumb their writing down, or mock those who do not dumb their work down, as if, knowing a word, one must never use it, or risk betraying one’s own people. The British poet Tony Harrison has approached this theme eloquently and powerfully. Anyway, accusing someone who disagrees with you of using only personal attacks, then going on to say he is “spreading shame” (which I don’t understand anyway) a few times without ever engaging with any of his points . . . well, this behaviour is its own counter argument, I think. Basically, Hoagland seemed to be calling for a kind of humility of which he himself is incapable in either word or action (at least from his performance that day.)
4) There is still a segment of the population that will think of themselves as rock stars, showing up at the last minute to read from their work to a room of maybe 25 people (when many of the panels, readings, and discussions attract audiences of hundreds or maybe a couple of thousand), who will begin the reading with an anecdote about how late their night was, with hints about sexual indiscretion and binge-drinking. I guess this is a normal trait of youth, and I’ve noticed also a nostalgia for it in older writers, who refer to such nights in their tributes to colleagues, and the response it elicits from the audience is related to their own youth or age relative to the speaker. It reminds me of a reading I went to in Vernon by Tom Wayman, who was reading from a comic novel set in the 60s that related the misadventures of a group of student radicals. The audience was made up mainly of people from that generation, and in the question and answer period that followed, people now in their 60s went on and on about how drug use back then was not the same as now. Back then, they seemed to say, there was a kind of purity in the souls of the people who used drugs, and this purity translated into the one true purpose for all acts, which is the seeking of transcendence. So I guess every generation thinks this, and it’s funny to me.
5) There are so many books out there, and so many presses, and we do hear a lot of gloom and doom about the future of publishing, but there is no way to read all the books that deserve attention anyway, so I think we’re still doing well. It was great to see a bunch of Canadian presses down there, and to find some regional U.S. ones that I didn’t know of. I limited my book purchases to what would fill the AWP bag, though, so that’s too bad, but maybe I’ll be able to read them all.
6) For what in the end is, I hope, a celebration of reading and writing (not a sales convention for writing programs, though there is that element), there is little time or space for reading and reflection. This is what strikes me even at the smallest readings, though—there is something embarrassing about it. It’s a private encounter, between a book and a reader, or should be. And when it’s working well it seems too private, a kind of secular version of prayer, and in this case, why am I packed into a room with all these other people, some of whom are not moved and are not paying attention and are distracting me from my attention to the moment.
7) The best I saw was a panel on criticism and book reviewing. James Wood was on it, and some others whose work I will look up now. But the most interesting part to me was Stephen Burt—I’ve read his work and admired it, but it was a surprise how energetic and funny he was as moderator. I’ll go read more of him. There was another bit about negative reviewing, and no one dismissed it outright, which is good, but one reviewer, Parul Sehgal, talked about the need for a spiritual and intellectual inventory prior to beginning to review a book for which she had no affection. I am paraphrasing here, and seem to have misplaced my notes, but that’s what I think she said. Regardless, the gist was that it’s important to understand why you dislike a book and make certain it’s sound and not just personal. This makes perfect sense to me. If you dislike a book of poems, for instance, do you dislike them because they are not the work of your favourite poet—i.e. does this book fail for you because the poet is not Elizabeth Bishop?
a. And here I will admit my own bias. A reviewer of my book of poetry (it really was not a review that said much about the book though, and I am sure anyone unfamiliar with the book would know little about it from reading the review, but this is what its author calls a review) complimented some poems as having “tight” or “taut” lines, or something, and found fault in the lack of these lines in other poems. What bothers me here is that the argument is basically that the author likes short poems with short lines and dislikes longer poems with a more exploratory impulse, and the underlying assumption is that if I were a poet of greater skill I would have worked until the longer and longer-lined poems were short lyrics. The idea seems to be that I wanted all of them to be short but was incapable of pulling it off, as the poems that aren’t short lyrics prove.
8) The last thing I want to mention is the odd case of the supposedly argumentative panel—or maybe investigative, at least critical—that turns into a tribute panel. There was a panel on Lewis Hyde’s The Gift and only one panelist, the poet Lee Ann Roripaugh, moved beyond the book itself, it seemed. The other panelist’s presentations were more in the vein of testimonials in support of personal application of the lessons of the book, personal narratives about gifts they’d been given as writers in their career, or, in one case, personal narratives about gifts the speaker himself gave to young writers. Lee’s was different, although she did begin from Hyde’s discussion of a gift economy (and I have to say here I have not read Hyde’s book and until Lee’s presentation didn’t feel I had to, as each time I’d heard it referred to seemed basically a restatement and reinforcement of its key principles (from Hoagland’s essay to this panel)), she talked extensively and eloquently of its contemporary expression in various forms of social media, things like the Delirious Hem advent calendar, etc. The only problem for me here is that I have misplaced the notebook with my notes. The other potential problem is that I know Lee’s work and know her interest in movement between genres, especially in her forthcoming book from Milkweed Editions—it comes out next year but I’ve been lucky to read a version of it recently and am quite taken with it, though I have to read it again to fully understand how it works, I think. So maybe my appreciation of her work coloured my take on her presentation. It had to, I suppose, but regardless, it was great to hear something more critically engaged.
9) I don’t know if I want to go back there. But I suppose if I don’t want to it’s because of the sense of all that I missed because of its size and duration and the fact I hate crowds, and if I focus on what I did get to see and hear, and the new books I have coming in the mail or bought there, then I would have to go. And the next one is in Seattle, so why not?